Albert Ellis defeated his fear of talking to women in a most courageous way.
He sat on a park bench at the New York Botanical Garden for a solid month and forced himself to speak to every female who parked themselves within earshot.
No tricks. No frills. No excuses.
Perhaps it was this alchemy of courage and creativity that propelled Dr. Albert Ellis to become one of the most influential psychotherapists in human history. It certainly was the bedrock that allowed him to found what is now called rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT).
REBT is defined as an action-oriented psychotherapy that teaches individuals to identify, challenge, and replace their self-defeating beliefs with healthier ones that promote emotional well-being and goal achievement.
“Neurosis is just a high-class word for whining,” Ellis said. “The trouble with most therapy is that it helps you feel better, but you don’t get better. You have to back it up with action, action, action.”
This cold, hard truth slapped me in the face recently.
Therapy’s One Glaring Weakness
A few years ago, midlife transition came at me hard.
An overloaded calendar, an epileptic child, financial woes, and a huge career change eventually found me dealing with stress and emotions on a scale I could no longer handle.
Unloading my burdens was refreshingly cathartic. And receiving regular encouragement and helpful feedback was nothing short life changing.
But life doesn’t stop hurling curveballs just because we’ve declared to the world that we want to get better.
And as life kept being life, I realized that therapy, just like anything else, is not a silver bullet.
In fact, I now have enough hours of counseling under my belt to have learned therapy’s one, glaring weakness.
Therapy only works if I do.
As it turns out, personal transformation can’t be farmed out.
Not even to a licensed therapist.
In fact, if therapy doesn’t eventually lead to clear-cut, actionable behavioral change, you’re well on your way to becoming “high-class whiner.”
A recent personal conflict put me in the crosshairs of this very thing.
Emulating My Three-Year-Old Role Model
Here’s how the conflict went down.
I had a personal exchange with someone whom I respect that left me feeling slighted, disrespected, and a bit insulted.
I thought I absolutely right about the situation, they were dead wrong, and I had a mountain of hard evidence to prove it.
Therefore, true to form, I got angry, vented to my wife, and began my sulking routine.
But since I’m on this quest to stop with the self-sabotage, I shook myself and began the search inwardly for the role I might have played in the malaise.
I found it.
Here’s what I realized:
1. I’m prone to taking certain things WAY too personally.
This struggle goes back to the fourth grade when my teacher punished the entire class for the misbehavior of a few select students.
Feeling slighted, I marched up to Mrs. Norman’s desk and launched an all-out defense of my untainted character.
Me: Why am I being punished?
Mrs. Norman: Because the class was misbehaving.
Me: But I wasn’t one of the ones misbehaving.
Mrs. Norman: No, you weren’t. Unfortunately, sometimes the whole class suffers for the misbehavior of a few.
Me: But that’s not fair. I didn’t do anything wrong.
I was respectful, but this fruitless exchange continued long enough that Mrs. Norman scheduled a conference with my mom to debrief the situation.
Her observation to my mother was this: Jathan takes it too personally when I reprimand the class as a whole. Can you get him to understand that I’m not singling him out or attacking his character when I dole out whole-class consequences?
Three decades later and I think I’m finally starting to get it. (Late blooming much?)
My second insight into my role in the conflict was:
2. I sulk too much.
As a grown man with four children, it pains me to admit that I’m still not beyond sulking like my three-year-old daughter.
When I feel I’m slighted, I isolate myself, erect an emotional fortress, and dare you to try and make me smile.
I think I do this in hopes that the world around me will realize what a martyr I am and erect a statue in honor of my great sacrifice.
When the Truth Doesn’t Set You Free
It was great (and painful ) to see these truths about myself. But personal insight alone isn’t enough.
It never is.
Knowing the truth doesn’t set you free. Acting upon it does.
The litmus test of our desire to change isn’t whether or not we pony up for a counseling session, but whether or not we act upon the self-revelation it produces.
It’s like Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Insight into my self-defeating behaviors burdened me with the responsibility to act my way into healthier ones.
In other words, I self-reflected my way into my very own park bench challenge.
Here was the challenge:
ACTION 1: I would force myself to see the situation through the other person’s eyes.
As previously mentioned, empathy and objectivity are especially difficult when I feel I’ve been personally slighted. But it’s during these times that I must focus the hardest on placing myself in the other person’s shoes.
I must intentionally frame remarks directed toward me in a global context.
It’s never more difficult to add perspective than during a heightened state of emotional arousal.
I was unable to do this in the fourth grade.
Three decades later, I finally pulled it off.
And with good results.
When I disassociated the reality of the situation from the way it made me feel personally, I had to admit that I had probably blown the conversation way out of proportion. (Not surprisingly, this judgment was later confirmed.)
ACTION 2: I would stop sulking, reach out, and spend time with the person socially.
I’ve learned that socialization is my elixir for sulkiness. And the best way for me to get out of a funk is to be around people. When this happens, I start having a good time and often forget how mad I’m supposed to be.
It was no different this time.
The other person and I enjoyed one another’s company and eventually ironed out the situation in a very natural way. The way mature adults who truly want to best for one another should be able to do.
My park bench challenge wasn’t easy, but it worked.
What about the good Dr. Ellis’? How did his work out?
Was he actually able to overcome decades of anxiety by taking such a simple yet direct action?
“Thirty walked away immediately,” said Ellis. “I talked with the other hundred, for the first time in my life, no matter how anxious I was.”
What’s Your Park Bench Challenge?
Unaddressed emotional issues will wreak havoc on our relationships, family, and personal well being. Because Generation Xers like me have never had more at stake, these hang-ups pose an intimidatingly large threat.
Although it’s a complicated, nonlinear proposition, dealing with our shadow self head-on is an undertaking we must take on with courage and haste if have any intention of enjoying the fruits of relational harmony as life unfolds.
Retaining the help of a therapist is a great way to do just that.
Never forget, however, that if therapy is not challenging you to take action against your self-defeating behaviors, you’re just paying good money to whine.
What’s your park bench challenge?
Get unstuck by believing the TRUTH about yourself.